Ambiguous Archipelago: Japan in the Chinese Press Today

Chinese netizens may be lavishing more attention on the South Korean pop star Rain (who, apparently, seeks nothing less than to abscond with Confucius’ bones to Seoul), but the Sino-Japanese relationship continues apace, with attendant action on the Chinese internet.

1. Transnational Nanking Massacre Research Team Completes Part One

The Sino-Japanese Joint Research Team has concluded the first stage of its work in Tokyo and has issued an interim report. The team has agreed in principle that Japan was indeed engaged in a “war of aggression” and that the Nanking Massacre should be titled as such, and noted as a crime against humanity. Bu Ping, head of modern history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the preeminent global authority on Japanese chemical weapons use in China, is leading the Chinese delegation. His statement praised the Japanese delegation for their objectivity and the dispassionate nature of the joint discussions.

This is where things get interesting.

Netizen comments on the story are nothing short of livid: Hasn’t it already been established that Japan’s actions in Nanking were illegal and that Japan invaded China in a war that had everything to do with aggressive imperialism and nothing to do with anti-colonial liberation?

Because I know Bu Ping personally (and am fairly in awe of his prodigious, interesting, and genuinely significant work as a scholar), I think this friction is worth thinking upon. Perhaps, as others have noted, the people writing on Huanqiu’s BBS are pure crackpots, knee-jerk nationalists, losers who are pre-programmed to attack Japan and call the Japanese names. Peter Hays Gries has done some great research on “China’s new nationalism,” but I don’t know that he or anyone else has done enough work on nationalism on the Huanqiu (or Qingnian Cankao) BBS to quantify that. In the meantime, besides watching CCTV or reviewing the latest big books (as seems able to do), these boards function as a kind of public square in China. In a country where open debate is sometimes hard to discern on less interactive media like television or newspapers, this action is still worth checking out.

I would add as a final thought here that the netizens aren’t attacking Bu Ping directly, but they don’t appear to be terribly aware of why he’s a credible voice on the issue of Japanese war crimes, which gets to bigger issues of credibility and the internet generally.

After all, how is a distinguished professor supposed to respond to comments like this?:


Researching whatever: Isn’t little Japan still mad with its own greatness? [We] need to occupy Japan, capture the Emperor alive, bomb and destroy Japan, and afterwards, we can write the beautiful history of the 21st century as one where Japan is destroyed and falls! [Rough translation]

How has digital culture impacted images of Japan among Chinese youth, anyway? Isn’t anyone writing a book or a series of articles about gamer culture, BBS culture, the cultures of the Chinese internet cafes and the image of Japan within all three? I’m certainly not there yet, but at the moment it feels like a lacuna exists. I’ll laugh with joy when the KangRi Zhanzheng Yanjiu journal (War of Anti-Japanese Resistance Journal) in Beijing issues such a piece.

2. Online conversations are continuing regarding Japanese war crimes.

This one BBS posting from August 2009, entitled “Japanese War Criminals of the Second World War,” has been picking up response after response, and this thread is now laden with discussion of, and data about, Japanese war crimes in China. It’s one to watch, and the Huanqiu Shibao is subtly keeping it on the agenda through little linklets on its regular discussion boards.

3. Parsing Words: Debating Verbs in the War of Resistance

Were Japanese armies in East Asia engaged in “invasion” or “liberation”? This discussion board takes on the question and assertions by Japanese revisionists.

4. Critiques of Japanese Society as a Means of Promoting Reform in China

This story about sexual harassment of women in Japanese companies is a signal example of how what might be pigeonholed as “anti-Japanese news” is in fact a complex critique of the PRC. Once you get past the surly photos of Japanese males going way over the line of propriety, what you get in this article is a long argument for the power of unions and workers’ association to counter various abuse of white-collar workers.

The principle of self-criticism is still active in China; what is particularly interesting is how news about China’s neighbors triggers that impulse in various ways. Even North Korea prompts introspection!

Let’s just not touch the Cold War’s impact though, shall we?

5. Japanese reports reveal schism re: postwar developments.

Whereas Xinhua is pushing a harmonious line regarding the meetings in Nanjing to readers on the mainland, in fact the joint research discussions reached a very important impasse: According to Mainichi Shimbun, China refuses to get into discussion of the postwar:

Following Thursday’s meeting, University of Tokyo Graduate School professor Shinichi Kitaoka, who headed the Japanese research team, and Bu Ping, director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, held a press conference to release the preface of the report.

“It is difficult to take up issues that are directly connected to our times. There is a great difference in views between Japan and China over such issues as the Cold War, the Korean War and the Peace Treaty signed in San Francisco,” Kitaoka said.

Bu agreed: “We need to take it into consideration what effect it would have on the public (to take up those issues).”

As I happen to have a book manuscript and some fresh publications going on anti-Japanese sentiment in the early postwar (1945-1952), I suppose this makes my work potentially, and sadly, significant.

Coda: Thanks to the very impressive folks at JingDaily for the link to my related editorial, “War Memory vs. Hello Kitty.”


  1. Adam,

    I am not sure if I get the point. To be sure, the Chinese public by and large is no fan of Japan just like the American public is no fan of China. Of course nationalism in China is very real (as is nationalism in the US, for example) and that China has its fair share of crackpots and lunatics who spend their day spouting out nothing but radical, jingoistic, chauvinist, nationalistic and even racist garbage. My question is can we paint an accurate picture of the state of the Sino-Japanese relationship (or any state to state relationship for that matter) at the non-governmental level based on these comments from websites like Huanqiu Shibao? Not that they are not telling enough, I am just not sure how representative they are. My favorite analogy is the one that involves, which is said to be the biggest white-supremacist website in the world based in the US with the majority of its members and participants being Americans. If I were to use comments on that site to gauge America’s public opinion on race and racial issues I would have led myself to believe that many many Americans, if not most are downright racist douchebags.

    Not that I am totally dismissing Huanqiu Shibao, a stronghold for many naive, fake “nationalists” who hopefully will grow out of their funk (they are afraid of too many things IMO). My point is perhaps to take the ilks of Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin (Yuck!) and those who identify with people like Ted Kennedy, Michael Moore and anyone in between into consideration when you evaluate these kind of interesting stuff. Just my useless 50 fen. Sorry if once again I missed the point, Adam!

    1. As deep in Republican territory as I am (Nixonian utopia of San Clemente), and as fresh as I am off a reading of Chapter 2 of “The Manchurian Candidate” (Cold War orientalist fantasy of a science-worship brainwashed CCCP-centered counter-epicenter), I’m not qualified to speak well on the subject at hand.

      Surely you are right on the extremes. I suppose what interests me is what is and what isn’t allowed on the Chinese internet. This makes Chinese political chat rooms or BBS boards very different, as the limits of what the government wants and will allow becomes more apparent, and those – whatever their motivation, frustrations, agglomerated arrogance or social station — with something to shout off about can do so and occasionally clash up against the CCP.

      But uproars in China are par for the course — Chinese governments always need to find ways to let off steam. Maybe these bulletin boards are no better than graffiti at Pompeii, vulgar etchings of a repugnant type, sometimes clever, reliably in Chinese argot at least.

      It’s all part of the chain of any movement, mass or otherwise — there will be followers whose self-dictates exceed in delusional or opportunistic tendency, or who transform through a sort of malign ennui into activators of a society of a type.

      So we should look at May 4, 1919, and December 9, 1935, and the “oppose American revival of Japan movement” of May-June 1948, and find some of the misplaced mirth, the barbs, the cartoons, the entertainment of it all, the songs! — Oh wait! That was all said to be directed by the CCP! Somehow they got into the guts of the patriotic student movement in postwar Shanghai and thereafter sent the shoutout. Maybe China has never had an unadulterated youth movement and never will.

      To return to your point: Really the BBS that needs much more monitoring is that of the Qingnian Cankao. My own wanderings through the Huanqiu are far too hazed by propaganda and reactive to achieve any truth other than an alert, of a certain variety — whereas QNCK, or QC to its stalwart inmates, brings a real impremateur not purely of Xinhua, but as an offshoot of a certain _faction_ (dormant though it may remain) in the CCP. Control of the youth news and newspapers in Beijing…
      Sidney Rittenberg, who was in charge of most of the English-language propaganda operations in Beijing, has got a ton of good stuff on the politics of media in the PRC. I’m still getting my brain around it for the 1940s, which is really my area of specialization as opposed to current events.

      So sure, I am guilty of pulling up these wicked parallels, and after some protestations of relevance or how it ties into some kind of evolution, I’m still impressed not so much by the venom of the Huanqiu comments as the direction that the CCP is steering things in. Certainly this matters — as the CCP is engaged in a complex game of placating and incentivising and propgandizing that layer of the society which responds with emotional violence to anything suggesting Japan. If the narrative is changing and becoming more favorable to a multitude of perspectives on Japan (or the reinforcement of many already-existing perspectives on Japan), then we need to take note of slight changes.

      And although Shijie Zhishi was a pure mouthpiece in 1950, even various expressions of uniform points there are worth reading. Doesn’t somebody need to be reading what the CCP is putting out there?

  2. Adam,

    I agree it can be quite revealing to examine what is and what is not allowed on some of those sites, especially those government-affiliated ones such as HQSB, QNCK and Renminwang etc. Howeber, I am not sure how much of a “steering” effort the CCP has been putting out. Feel free to correct me, from what I see (and is by no means limited to just the named sites above) the “mods” on these sites have become quite tolerant and insensitive to many what I consider borderline “anti-CCP” comments. And it seems they allow most of the jingoistic, nationalists rants targeting Japan and other countries. What does this tell me? Not much other than them becoming more tolerant, which is very good.

    Maybe you are once again reading too much out of trivial, mundane and insignificant stuff (and I don’t blame you after all this is sort of what you do), or perhaps you are right and that I am not giving the CCP enough credit due for being sophisticated and manipulative enough. I guess I just don’t see how the CCP or anyone can effectively take advantage of these forums and bulletin boards to steer or influence public opinion unless they have their own, you know, 50-cents workerbees working at full throttle, which I highly doubt.

    I have a question for you Adam: Do the see the Chinese forums and bulletin boards different from those South Korean, Japanese and western ones? To me they are mostly the same: a venue for people to escape from real life and to say mostly stupid things they wouldn’t say to real people in real life.

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